We’re 20 — in sea turtle years! Hard to believe that it’s been two decades since that first sick turtle “Lucky” was delivered into Jean’s hands for care. And that same turtle was also the start of our continuing collaboration with the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine. Who could have imagined that together we’d grow to a state-of-the-art facility along with the only vet school in the country that offers a two-week class specializing in sea turtle care and rehabilitation. If you could contact the more than 650 turtles who got a second chance at life, we’re sure that you’d get an ocean load of “flippers up” for their stay with us.

We hosted six of Dr. Harms’ fourth-year vet students (along with his resident and vet tech) during the first two weeks in September. They spent their days working with our staff, learning the fine art of sea turtle husbandry (the care, feeding and cleaning of sea turtles) and getting up close and personal with each of the turtles assigned to them as case studies. Every turtle was carefully examined: Blood was drawn, flippers checked for injuries and range of motion, treatment plans for wounds and illnesses reviewed and radiographs taken as necessary. Our turtles even had a visit from a specialist, Dr. Westermeyer, the veterinary ophthalmologist who removed Kayak’s and Sewee’s cataracts. He and his colleagues are studying eye pressure in sea turtles, hoping to determine if the level correlates in some way with the health of the critter. It was a new experience for our patients as they got that “puff of air” we all get in our eyes during our visits to the eye doctor. After a few days of physicals, Dr. Harms determined that five of our turtles were ready to go home.

On Sept. 8 we celebrated our 20 collaboration with the vet school with a small ceremony where Jean presented Dr. Harms and our other turtle vet, Dr. Greg Lewbart, with a commemorative plaque. We also had a chance to meet some of the behind-the-scenes staff from vet school, many of whom had come to our facility for the first time. Afterward we loaded three small greens (Petunia, Red Bud and Piglet) and two loggerheads (Dandelion and Sweet Pea) into our big hospital van and headed to the beach in Surf City. The crowd began gathering an hour before our arrival, intent on getting a place up front for the best view, the veterans of our releases bringing along beach chairs to catch some rays during the wait. Our hospital and Turtle Project volunteers worked the lines answering questions while TV crews and photographers set up to record the action. Around 2:30 p.m. Jean crested the walk-over and the crowd cheered, knowing that the turtles were not far behind.

Dr. Harms, Dr. Lewbart and the sea turtle rotation class were given the honor of releasing their patients. Jean warned them that their mission, should they choose to accept it, was to get all turtles safely from the van to the surf. That included being prepared to “get wet up to your shoulders” if necessary, and it was necessary as the little greens had to be carried out past the breakers. Once the greens were gone Dandelion, a smallish loggerhead was carried slowly down to the surf and placed on the sand. She only had eyes for home and took off at what was lightning speed, at least for a sea turtle. Finally our big girl, Sweet Pea was hauled over the walkway in her large carrier. It took eight determined turtle wranglers to get this zaftig (about 280 pounds) lady out and down the beach near the surf. She moved as quickly as those flippers could carry her, looking around at the crowd and her caretakers before taking a deep breath and shooting far out into the ocean. She was last seen breaking the waves a few hundred feet offshore headed who knows where.

Dr. Harms will be visiting our remaining patients again in the near future for another round of physicals. A few of them were very close to getting their swimming papers on this visit so they’re working hard (eating lots of fish, squid and greens) and exercising (in the therapy pool and their tanks) hoping to catch the last bus to the shore while the water is still warm. Check our Facebook page as the summer winds down to see if they get their wish.

Hospital now on fall tour schedule

Our heartfelt thanks to all of you again for a busy season. We’re still meeting a lot of our turtle fans from all over the world. As we direct our efforts into getting the building (and ourselves) ready for what will undoubtedly be another busy fall we’ve moved to our off-season tour schedule. We are open only on Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. We will not be open on Thanksgiving but will open on “Black Friday” and also that Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Our last day for tours in 2016 is Dec. 22.

Admission is $5 adults; $4 seniors (65+) and active military with ID and $3 for children 13 and over. It’s still hot here through September so an umbrella to make your own shade and lots of water to stay hydrated would be a good idea. We do our best to get you inside as quickly as possible but we also want to allow enough time for everybody to enjoy their visit. The hospital is located at 302 Tortuga Lane in Surf City. From N.C. 210/50 turn onto Charlie Medlin Drive. (Shipwreck Point Mini Golf is your landmark) and follow it through the roundabout onto Tortuga. Our gift shop is open during tours and we have a lot of exclusive hospital clothing and plush animal merchandise, and lots of sea turtle “stuff.” Come in to meet our patients and talk some sea turtle with our staff.

Hatching continues through the next few months

It would be very unusual for any more turtle moms to still be nesting but one did — a geen, a species that we don’t have nest here frequently. Now the activity focuses on hatching, and we have about half of our nests still in the incubation phase. Even with all the coverage by our Topsail Turtle Project volunteers it’s possible to miss nesting or hatching signs for a variety of reasons. That’s why we ask you to be our extra eyes and to report any tracks to Director of Beach Operations Terry Meyer at 910-470-2880. And we are still admitting victims of last winter’s cold weather who are only now becoming too debilitated from that trauma to survive without intervention. Please be on the lookout for any turtle in distress, injured (or dead) and call Meyer, Hospital Director Jean Beasley at 910-470-2800 or the State of NC hotline for stranded, sick and injured turtles at 252-241-7367. The state number picks up 24/7. Remember that interfering or harassing federally protected sea turtles in any way makes you subject to steep fines and possible imprisonment.

If you happen to see a hatchling on the beach (sometimes they wash back in if the surf is rough) carefully pick it up and put it in a small container with only a small amount of water — barely cover the flippers. With this extreme heat it’s important that the little critter not bake in the sun for hours. Then call Director of Beach Operations Meyer at 910-470-2880. If she is not available you may call the hospital during operating hours: 910-329-0222. We will take the information and one of our area coordinators will meet you to retrieve the hatchling and refer it to us for follow-up.

Questions, comments, suggestions?

Please direct any questions, comments or suggestions re: this column to me at flippers@att.net. This column will appear every other week beginning in September.


Karen Sota is the volunteer media coordinator for the Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach.